Actor, playwright and composer Raymond Scannell is currently starring in The Gate Theatre's acclaimed - and immersive - production of The Great Gatsby. Here, he writes for Culture about the bash of the year...
My day job currently involves attending a party at Jay Gatsby's Mansion for the first time, every night. And to fall in on the piano where required... I might just be working the best gig in town.
Interacting with an audience who are experiencing their first Gatsby Party right there in the flesh too, my role is that of just another newcomer. Chester McKee, a photographer who needs to supplement the bohemian lifestyle by gathering stories for the press, (and perhaps by gathering a scoop on this man Gatsby?) is just like any other guest at the mansion; Chester is there because he heard that Gatsby throws the best parties.
Of course, it’s not always straightforward. Week three (at the Big Brother Gatsby house), and behind the scenes, the cast have reached the earworm stage. We’re making in-jokes around lyrics contained within the pre-show playlist. First thing in the morning, last thing at night when you put head to pillow, the songs go round and round. The production makes no bones about choosing tracks that blur the lines between eras (a phenomenon that the cast have affectionately termed ‘bendy logic’). Reflecting, perhaps the timeless attraction to the Gatsby story. It’s ironic, then, that it is numbers from in or around the era (Happy Feet, On with the Dance, Swanee Shuffle, Tain’t no Sin) which stick the most.
New York is big, brash, stepping out. Creating it’s very own, uniquely American art form, in jazz.
Once the show is up and running though, it’s Benny Goodman’s slightly later Sing Sing Sing (A Gatsby Party would be nothing without an orchestra) which captures this fever and triggers an outburst of the Charleston on the dance floor.
And like any good house party, things get more intimate at certain times during the night. With live party-pieces around the piano (some of which, like Ain’t We Got Fun and Three O’Clock in the Morning, plucked directly from the original novel). The jazz bar songs speak to that noble call experience, where everyone is invited to make a contribution. Here, Myrtle Wilson, Jordan Baker and Daisy Buchannon, at different times, are asked to take the '60s era mic. Or you might find yourself by a more beat-up piano in the prohibition era 'drugstore’ (wink, wink). Where George Wilson fires off an electric version of When I get Low I get High. And with a cast of double, sometimes triple, threats, we are spoiled for choice at this bash.
As the party goes on, the bath tub gin flows, and logic begins to drift further, the show centres around a soul classic Otis Redding’s I've Been Loving You Too Long, (making a ghostly reprise at the end). From the interval playlist: a handful of electro swing numbers… right up to a cover of Lou Reed's Vanishing Act… It’s not so much about capturing the time itself which is at play here. It's the themes, musically and lyrically, from any era, which will speak to the narrative beats of The Great Gatsby’s timeless concerns.
In exploring iconic New York bands/songs/musicians, we had toyed around with the idea of covering Talking Heads' Heaven… the lyrics perhaps being a little bit too much on the money. 'Everyone is trying. To get to the bar. Name of the bar. The bar is called Heaven. The band in heaven they play my favourite song. Play it once again. Play it all night long.' The jazz bar at the Gate has become a heavenly bar. An idyllic place that captures the hedonistic release of a jazz age party. A generation, finding release from the shock of the First World War. Wouldn’t you party? But of course the party has to end sometime. And the beginning of the end (the transition from the Buchanan Mansion to the hotel scene in New York) is punctuated, like a valve being released, to the loud strains of Saul Williams’ List of Demands.
America was trying to shake off the shackles of its European forefathers' influence. In terms of photography, it was pioneers like Alfred Stieglitz (who discovered and married artist Georgia O'Keefe) who were keen to push the next big American 'thing'. The same was happening across many forms: architecture, dance, visual arts. In literature, of course, Gatsby will go on to galvanise itself as one of the Great American Novels. Musically, The Great American Art Form was Jazz. Sometimes said to be the only true American art from. The term ‘Jazz Age’ was thought to have been coined by Fitzgerald himself.
What a time to be performing at the Gate. Much like the jazz age, a time of transition. Of invitation. Of celebration. Of excitement for the future.
The Great Gatsby continues at The Gate Theatre in Dublin until September 16 - details here.